René Champion, a professor of anthropology at the University of Denver, was abused as a child. But that wasn’t the only reason he ran away from home – it also had something to do with the irresistible lure of the horizon.
Champion is one of hundreds of thousands of teenagers who ran away during the Great Depression. They became hobos and transients, riding freight trains around the country in search of work and adventure. Documentary filmmakers Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell sought these people out to tell their stories, and out of 3,000 potential subjects, they found 10 amiable, talkative people to speak on camera in “Riding the Rails.”
These people’s stories offer great insight into the everyday lives of hobos; they put a personal face on the transient life and make the Great Depression seem less abstract to younger generations. Each person is bright and articulate, and each has an engaging story to tell.
One ran away from home for the sheer adventure of it, even though his family was well off. Still another said his family told him he had to leave because they couldn’t afford him staying at home. One woman ran away after her father refused to believe she would follow through on her threat to leave.
Transience was a way to fight the economic hardship of the times. It was a way of being pro-active in a near-hopeless situation. If you could get a cot and a meal at a shelter, you might only be allowed to stay for a night or two. But you could always move on to the next town.
For those who were looking for work, transience gave them options. They could follow the harvests — picking strawberries in one place, apples in another, and so on — until the last harvest of the fall. In this fashion, they could earn enough money to survive the winter.
For those who just wanted to get away from home, it was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Of the 10 profiled in “Riding the Rails,” Guitar Whitey is the only one who still rides the rails. He’s retired, but he spends his summers traveling the country by freight. He took one of the filmmakers with him on one trip, which he describes as the last free red-blooded adventure: It’s illegal, dirty, cold and fun, and he says he plans to keep doing it until he can no longer climb on a boxcar.
This film’s great strength is that the 10 subjects do most of the storytelling. Uys and Lovell have structured the film by breaking the interviews into recognizable segments, but they let their subjects tell their stories in their own way. And it’s these stories that make the film worth seeing.
Only a few minor points detract from the movie. The film uses archival footage — a necessity in this type of documentary — but the picture and narration aren’t always a close match. I kept looking for the narrator’s face in the crowd, but I eventually realized that the footage was only meant to be a generalized representation of the narrator’s experience and not a specific one. It’s a conventional technique, but in an era when documentary film has been pushing its formal and conceptual boundaries, even the use of conventional techniques should probably be examined. More daring, but for some reason not very effective, is the use of new black and white video footage to ease the transition between the historical.
“Riding the Rails” tells a story we’ve all heard before, but it puts a human face on that story. It’s a well-made documentary with some very interesting people, and at only 72 minutes long, it should be easy to work into your schedule.
Thanks to J. Gluckstern for Editing.